When your baby is in jail

Before I got pregnant the most time I had ever spent in a hospital was in the late nineties when I worked across the road from a teaching hospital. Teaching hospitals have student doctors and student doctors have parties... inside hospital buildings.  You haven't lived until you've drunk something called a "Green death"* and then stumbled out into the night via A&E having made sure to turn left and not right at the hospital chapel.  Where was I? Oh yes, hospitals. I've never spent very much time in one as a patient but when my son was born, suddenly I was recovering from surgery and he was a little undersized tiddler strung with tubes and wires. We got to spend a LOT of time in hospital after that.

Having your kid in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (or NICU) is a very strange experience. You have a newborn baby but you also get to actually sleep because they're in the hospital and you're at home. So you can do things like go to a party or whatever.
Which sounds great, I'm sure. But it's not. When your baby is in NICU it's kind of like they're in jail except you have no idea when they'll be eligible for parole.
The social worker I spoke to said that no one understands about NICU unless they've been through it. It can be a highly stressful environment for new parents...which is why they have social workers. Most mums in the unit end up needing to talk things through with a social worker at least once. There's a higher incidence of PND (Post Natal Depression) amongst mums with babies in NICU and sometimes, if the labour was especially difficult, PTSD.
It's a difficult place to be in. I hated it with my entire being.
For one, it's very, very warm. This is for the babies and their very weak immune systems so it's with good reason, but it can kind of suck the energy out of you being in a overly warm room for hours at a time.
And as nice as it is to be able to sleep at night without being woken by a mewling infant you still have to get up in the middle of the night to express milk, so you end up very tired anyway. And rather than hanging out at home in your pyjamas all day where you can take naps when the baby sleeps you have to get up and dressed and make your way into the hospital so you can do at least 3 daytime feedings and there's nowhere really to have a kip while you're there. They are long days in an environment that's not cosy or familiar.
Also, whereas most new mums get to know their babies in the privacy of home, you have to do it in front of nurses whose job it is to care for babies, and other mothers. Your baby won't feed well? You're doing that in front of a room of people. Your baby screams his head off and won't go to sleep? You're doing that in front of a room of people. You lose your sh*t and cry because it's all too hard? You're doing that in front of a room of people.
And they're nice people (mostly), and helpful people but I found it very dispiriting indeed. I mean, the nurses keep a file and actually mark you. This is so they can chart how well the baby is taking to breastfeeding. They use numbers to indicate whether the baby has a successful latch and feeds well. Babies can't go home until they're able to feed, either from the breast or a bottle so this is all charted. They also note how often you come in to see the baby. And it's the nurses who eventually decide when you can take your baby home. The doctors make the call on whether the baby is well enough to go home but it's the nurses who decide whether you can cope.
We spent nearly a month in NICU. This was largely because my son just couldn't get the hang of feeding. We tried everything. I had 2 different lactation consultants speak to me, every nurse in the place offered advice, and as an aside I had my boobs handled by more middle aged ladies than I would have imagined possible. After a while you stop caring. I wonder if that is how waitresses at Hooters feel?
And then there was my not coping very well. I cried every day my son was in hospital. In the end the social worker gave me a test to check if I was depressed. My score suggested I was borderline. There might have been a day or two where I crossed over that border.
However, when your baby has grown enough and is feeding okay you then get to do something they call "rooming in". For a 48 hour period you stay in the ward with your baby and do all the feeds and accompanying baby-wrangling singlehanded. They have a small suite of rooms for this purpose and it's a bit like staying in a 3 star hotel except generally hotels don't make you watch a DVD about Shaken Baby Syndrome and how to give an infant CPR right after you check in.
They weigh your baby before you room-in and at the end of the 2 day stint. If the baby has put on weight during that time (ie their health is fine and you have somehow avoided making a massive cock-up), you're pretty much good to go. Still, it's a very weird thing to feel like you have to earn the right to "go forth and parent". It's like a parole board hearing or something.
We started rooming-in on Boxing Day last year. One of the first things my son ever saw on television was the Doctor Who Christmas special, though I doubt he'll remember it (and it was on a 14" CRT TV so it wasn't the most awe-inspiring of televisual experiences, to be honest).
The day after Boxing Day we got to take him home. And that's when the really hard stuff started but at least it was difficult in the privacy of our own home.
Being in NICU is really tough going and in lots of ways I haven't even gone into. It's a very strange way to start out the terrifying vocation that is parenthood though I suspect there is no easy version of that.
Anybody else been in NICU? Any pointers for making it through with your sense of wellbeing intact? My tip is always have water with you.
*I would provide you with the ingredients of this highly effective concoction but I think it would be irresponsible. Soz.

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